ESPN’s Dick Vitale, popularly known as college basketball’s top ambassador, generously took a timeout from his busy March Madness schedule earlier this week as he shared some thoughts about the upcoming Big Dance, the Wildcats, the recent College GameDay telecast of Kentucky-Missouri showdown, among various topics.
The 34-year TV broadcasting veteran says the 2013 NCAA men’s Division I tournament is going to be very difficult to prognosticate.
“It is going to be one of the toughest tournaments to project,” said the colorful Vitale via e-mail with this columnist on Monday. “I think when you look at it, the unpredictability is incredible. I also believe that when it is all said and done, while there are a lot of teams that could win two games, there are only a handful that could win six and cut down the nets. You separate the pretenders from the contenders.”
Vitale — who interestingly will be working the Final Four for the first time in his basketball hall of fame career, calling for ESPN International — thinks there is a good chance that someone from the Big Ten Conference will capture the Big Dance.
And you certainly can’t argue with Vitale’s assessment as the Big Ten has five teams ranked in this week’s AP Top 25 poll, including four in the top 10 with top-rated Indiana, No. 6 Michigan, No. 8 Michigan State and No. 10 Ohio State.
“I feel the Big Ten teams have the best shot to stand tall and win a championship for the first time since 2000 when Michigan State won it all in Indianapolis,” said Vitale, a former college and NBA coach who has been a studio analyst on ESPN’s coverage of the men’s tournament every season since he joined the sports cable network in 1979. “There are five teams from the league that are capable of winning it; they have a legitimate shot at six games in a row.”
During his long career, Dick Vitale has called over 2,000 college basketball games, including the electrifying ESPN College GameDay atmosphere on Feb. 23, featuring the unforgettable UK-Missouri contest.
In Kentucky’s 90-83 overtime victory over Missouri at Rupp Arena, Vitale praised the emotional sellout crowd of 24,380, the 15th-largest UK gathering since Rupp opened in 1976.
“I can simply tell you that it was very loud in Rupp Arena that Saturday night,” he said. “Was it the loudest? I can’t really tell because it has been so loud in there. I don’t know that I have ever heard that place erupt like that in a ‘must’ game like it did that night.
“The crowd played a vital role in getting to the winner’s circle that evening. They deserve a tribute and a salute as the most passionate basketball fans out there.”
What about Vitale’s most memorable moment as an announcer when calling a UK game?
The broadcaster remembers a lot of good Kentucky moments.
“I have had so many over the years. Just seeing the greatness of the teams that have been on the floor in my 34 years, watching all of those PTP’ers play,” explained Vitale, a former teacher during his early days. But he really likes UK’s 2011-12 national championship team.
“I’ve enjoyed one highlight, watching John Calipari’s young kids playing dominant basketball featuring dynamite youngsters in Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist,” said Vitale. “They were a terrific duo and they were so unselfish. It was all about the team and that was what I really enjoyed in covering that team when I was fortunate enough to see them courtside.”
As for this year’s Kentucky 21-10 squad, which plays Friday night in the SEC tournament in Nashville, “it has been a real challenge for John Calipari most of the year,” according to Vitale.
“I think deep down he anticipated and expected a better season though many teams would give anything to have the kind of year that the Cats had,” he added.
The sky-high expectations from the fans and the media in the pre-season actually made UK’s situation look worse. And Vitale says he shouldn’t have rated Kentucky very high back in early November.
“Unfortunately, in their case, there are so many expectations. I feel that everyone, including yours truly, rated them too high at the start of the season. I had them in my pre-season top five and that was too high,” commented Vitale.
“They had very little experience returning and that was not taken into consideration enough. The one thing that was special about last year’s national championship is that they had three players returning who were quality talents with lots of experience in Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and Terrence Jones. All three went to the NBA. Their presence allowed the diaper dandies to blend in and the freshmen were able to take advantage of that luxury, while this year’s squad could not. It also helped to have Davis, the best defensive player in America.”
But the 73-year-old Vitale said the current Kentucky club has found the courage to win the critical late-season games without injured superstar Nerlens Noel.
“This year’s team also had guts and fortitude in finding a way to win against Missouri and Florida and I attribute a lot of that to the motivational ability of Calipari,” he said. “Big Blue Nation would not allow their team to lose, cheering in a positive way. They are the most passionate and loyal fans in America.”
The Wildcats, a likely No. 11 or No. 12 seed in the NCAA if they get an expected invitation to the Big Dance party, are rated No. 44 (as of Tuesday), according to ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index (BPI).
And the big question, at this writing, is: Can the Noel-less Cats — playing in a rare role of a mini-Cinderella — scrap their way to tournament success? Vitale and the NCAA tournament fans will soon find out.